Sunday, May 08, 2016

Time to Hang Out My Shingle: Manuscript Consultation Begins! UPDATE!

UPDATE: Hi guys, sorry to leave this up without a follow up for so long. It creates the impression that this has become a pay-to-play website! Not true!  As longtime readers know, I always take the summers off, and we’re in that period now, but free content will resume in the fall. The only question is if it will be here or on I’ll let you know here around Labor Day. In the meantime, my offer of paid notes still stands. It’s worth the nickel!

ORIGINAL POST: So for a while now people have been hunting me down and hitting me up for paid manuscript consultation, and I’ve reluctantly complied, and gotten gratifyingly grateful feedback, but I’ve never committed to it …until now. No, I don’t just apply the checklist (you can do that yourself), I just do an organic evaluation.

I’ve been doing it all: screenplays, teleplays, and lots and lots of novels (my book agent has been having his clients hire me for consultation) which has gone surprisingly well, so try me out and I’ll probably handle what you want read. Here’s how it’ll work:
  • You email me your manuscript. In script format if it’s a script (pdf or Final Draft), or double-spaced 12 pt text (Microsoft word or rtf) if it’s prose.
  • You include an email telling me what you want to do with it and what sort of notes you’re looking for.
  • I read it and mark it up, usually about one annotation per page.
  • I then write you an in-depth editorial letter, about 4-8 single-spaced pages, with notes for pushing the manuscript in the direction you want it to go.
So what’s the price? $2 per page of your manuscript. So a 60 page TV pilot would be $120, a 120 page screenplay is $240, a 240 page novel manuscript is $480, etc. It’s not cheap, but it’s pretty comprehensive and my customers have always let me know that they’ve been eminently satisfied.

So here we are. We’ll see how many hits I get from this: maybe just a few, maybe just enough, or maybe too many, in which case I’ll let you know if what the turnaround time will be. So far I’ve been turning them around in about 2-3 weeks.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Let me know in the comments or email me! My email is Please put “manuscript consultation” in the subject line.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

So Exhausted

Sorry, guys. I'm beat. Thanks again for all your help. I'll be back soon to figure out where we go from here.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Day 6: Moments of Humanity

Okay guys, the book isn’t due until Monday, so we can do one or two more. Even though this is one of my marquee pieces of advice, I still don't have enough examples. And I just realized to my horror that I pulled Aladdin right out of “Save the Cat”, so that has to go. Any ideas for books for any of these?

Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on?

Your heroes have a lot of work to do, so it’s tempting to simply hit the ground running, and instantly start dumping problems on their heads until they’re ready to stand up and do something about it. But you can’t assume we’ll automatically bond with your heroes just because we’re told to identify with them. The audience is actually inclined to distrust and reject your heroes, for all the reasons listed in Part I.

We won’t go anywhere with your heroes until they win us over. Logically, we know this is fiction and we shouldn’t care about a bunch of lies, but you need to overcome our resistance and make us care, against our better judgment.

So how do you do that? You need to give your hero at least one moment of humanity, which will break through that resistance and bond us to the hero. This is the moment the audience forgets this is fiction and starts to believe in the character.

The moment of humanity can take different forms:

Something Funny: This is easiest to do in first-person novels, of course, where the hero can win us over on the first page with a snarky point of view. In movies, this just means cracking wise, usually in a perceptive way, as with the heroes of Casablanca, Ocean’s Eleven, Groundhog Day, and Juno. This can also bond us to characters who are scared to be funny out loud, but have a very funny, perceptive, and self-deprecating voiceover, such as the heroes of The Apartment, Spider-Man, and Mean Girls.

An Out-of-Character Moment, where we realize this character won’t just be one-note. This may seem odd: How is it possible to introduce your character with an out-of-character moment? It takes very little time to establish expectations before you start to upset them. Jokes are written according to the “rule of threes:” something happens twice, which establishes a pattern, and then the third time something different happens, which upsets the pattern. That’s all it takes.
  • Tony Stark in Iron Man proves himself to be a boastful alpha-male billionaire in the first scene as he boldly shows off his new weapon to a group of generals, but then he asks to share a Hum-V with some soldiers and becomes self-deprecating and gregarious, making jokes about gang-signs in selfies.
Compassionate: This is tricky, because you want to avoid generically benevolent “save-the-cat” moments, which actually alienate an audience. The best compassionate moments are ones that are also out-of-character moments:
  • Aladdin has a great song about being a fun-loving thief, but after he gets away with his bread, he reluctantly lets starving kids beg it off of him. This is a clear-cut “save-the-cat” moment, but it only works because it’s out of character. If he had stolen the bread for the kids, we wouldn’t like him as much. That would actually be more sympathetic, but less compelling.
Otherwise, compassionate moments should be rooted in the hero’s own sense of emotional vulnerability. Ben Stiller stands up for Cameron Diaz’s mentally disabled brother in There’s Something About Mary because he feels like a fellow outcast. Katniss volunteers in her sister’s place in The Hunger Games because she feels she’s already hardened herself, and whether or not she survives the games, she doesn’t want her innocent sister to lose her humanity, as well.

An Oddball Moment, where the character, rather than single-mindedly pursuing a goal, indulges in a bit of idiosyncratic behavior that briefly interrupts the momentum of the story in a good way.
  • The French Connection: We never really get any moments of weakness or humility from Popeye, but we fall in love with him when he suddenly veers off script in an interrogation and starts asking the suspect if he ever picked his feet in Poughkeepsie.
  • Blazing Saddles: Ex-slave, track-layer Bart is ordered to sing an old slave song as he works, so he smirks and breaks out into an anachronistic rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You.” We now love this guy. 
Comically Vain: A variation of the “laugh-with” funny moment is the “laugh-at” moment in which the character is comically vain.
  • Han Solo in Star Wars is wounded that Luke and Obi-Wan have never heard of his ship.
  • The hero of Rushmore imagines he is a math genius and the hero of the school, only to wake up to a more modest reality.
  • Ted on How I Met Your Mother describes to a girl in a bar his imaginary wedding in an adorably deluded way.
  • Annie in Bridesmaids sneaks out of her lover’s bed in the morning to do herself up, then climbs back in so that she’ll look like she’s woken up looking beautiful.
A Unique-But-Universal Moment that has nothing to do with the story, where the character does something we’ve all done, but we’ve never seen portrayed before.
  • My favorite movie, the silent drama The Crowd, begins with a dead-simple example: Our hero is nervously preparing for a date in front of the mirror, when he notices a spot on his face. He keeps trying to rub it off, to no avail, until he realizes that it’s a spot on the mirror.
  • Modern Times gets us on the side of the Little Tramp by introducing him as he’s working an assembly line, and can’t take his hands off for a second, but he has to scratch his nose.
  • William Goldman, in his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, writes about how nobody was bonding with the hero in his movie Harper, so he added a brief scene in the beginning where Harper gets up in the morning, starts to make coffee, and realizes that he’s out of filters. Harper thinks for a second, then fishes yesterday’s filthy filter out of the garbage, brushes it off and re-uses it. Suddenly, the audience is ready to go anywhere with this guy.
  • In the case of The 40 Year Old Virgin, it’s the very first shot: Andy tries to pee while coping with a painful morning erection. That’s certainly a unique-but-universal moment I never thought I'd see portrayed onscreen.
No matter which kind you choose, these moments of humanity are essential for building quick identification. You have a very short time to get your audience to say, “I love this person” before they give up and tune out.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Day 5: Dialogue

Okay guys, the book is due on Friday, so we’ve almost reached the end of this. Here are two checklist questions about dialogue that could sorely use some book examples

Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?

Dialogue should be as realistic as possible, with two big exceptions: It should be more succinct and have more personality. The danger, of course, is you’ll accomplish this by giving every character the gift of sparkling, sophisticated banter, but that’s not what I mean at all.

Instead, consider this exchange from the first X-Men movie, after Wolverine returns from fighting a shape-shifting villain:
  • Wolverine: Easy, it's me.
  • Cyclops: Prove it
  • Wolverine: [thinks, then] You’re a dick.
  • Cyclops: [thinks, then] Okay.
That is one of the few memorable moments in the movie, but the offhand delivery of these three little words is enough to make Hugh Jackman a star and launch a franchise—and it’s the opposite of sophisticated banter. Never write a page of banter when three words will do.

Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have enough personality to be a fictional character. For one thing, I have no pet names for my wife. On those rare occasions I feel it would be appropriate to tack an endearment onto the end of a sentence, I fall back on the old standbys like sweetheart, darling, or baby. But I’m not a fictional character. And the one thing you need to understand about fictional characters is they have more personality than us.

When your characters use endearments, that’s one more chance for you to give them a little more personality. Use something specific, something no one else in the story would say. Sometimes, you can even find language that amplifies the keynotes of their personalities:
  • Vince Vaughn in Swingers doesn’t say, “You’re awesome, dude!” like he probably would in real life. Instead, he says, “You’re so money and you don’t even know it!” That’s wonderfully specific, and it speaks to his predatory tendency to value people according to what they can do for him.
  • In the great film noir Scarlet Street, when the sleazy low-life played by Dan Duryea calls his girlfriend “lazy legs” and she loves it, we pretty much know everything we need to about both of them.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Part 4: "I Understand You" moments

Okay guys, not much more of this because the book is due some day soon! In the meantime, this one has a negative book example, but not a positive book example  What’s a great book “I understand you” moment?

Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with her love interest or primary emotional partner? 

We’ve all had the experience. You’re sure you’ve met your perfect match. You rhapsodize for hours about everything that made you fall head over heels, but at the end, your friend just shrugs and says, “Are you kidding me?”

The problem, of course, is your hormonal response is distorting your reality, and your cool-eyed friends are evaluating the shelf-life of this new relationship dispassionately, asking: Do these two have enough in common? Will they treat each other well? Do they need each other?

It’s great to capture the subjective experience of falling in love, of course, though novelists have a much better chance of doing that than screenwriters.

Screenwriters can try to cheat, like West Side Story did, by using subjective camera effects to capture Tony’s besotted vision of Maria, but even back then, viewers just rolled their eyes. The camera eye is not the hero’s eye, and we will always see more than he sees, no matter how much Vaseline you smear on the lens.

But in some ways the screenwriter has the advantage, because a well-written story, in any medium, will capture both the subjective experience and an objective perspective on this relationship. Allow the audience to be both the besotted hero and the dubious friend.

So this is one case where you don’t want to “write what you know.” Don’t trust your own distorted memories of love and/or heartbreak. Instead, think back to your friends’ relationships. Which relationships did you root for and which infuriated you? Which ones endangered your friends and which saved them? Most importantly, how did you know they were right for each other, maybe even before they did?

Whether your first draft is one huge love story or the romance is a minor element, once you’ve gotten some notes, you may be shocked to discover that nobody sees what you see in the love interest.

The reason so many love stories fail, and so many lame love interests drag stories down, is the writers have failed to add “I understand you” scenes. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but the series has a huge flaw: Nowhere in the course of these seven massive books does Rowling ever put in a single “I understand you” scene between either of the main couples: Harry/Ginny or Ron/Hermione! Ginny is especially thin; she’s basically just “the girlfriend.” Finally, years later, Rowling acknowledged her mistake publicly: Hermione is the one who understands Harry, and they should have ended up together.

Of course, given that your hero starts off with a false goal and a false statement of philosophy, it’s tempting to make the love interest the character lecturing your hero from the start. But then, you risk drifting into another category of alienating character: Just as you don’t want a hero who just says no, likewise you don’t want a stick-in-the-mud love interest, such as the kind you find in Old School, and many other manchild comedies.

Better “I understand you” moments don’t have anything to do with wanting to change the other person and everything to do with accepting: We don’t root for the Beauty and the Beast to get together until the beast gives Belle his library.

Sometimes, you can establish they understand each other before they even meet. We know in advance that the heroes in Friends with Benefits will bond because we see they have an ironically shared dislike of relationships. And what could be more romantic than the song that drifts from Maurice Chavalier in the city out to Jeanette MacDonald in the country in Love Me Tonight, uniting their hearts before either knows the other exists?

Just as you must occasionally check with your friends to make sure you’re not blinded by love in real life, you must get notes to find out how well your fictional romance is playing with your readers. Don’t be surprised if you need to give it a firmer foundation.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Part 3: Small Thematic Details

I always have a hard time answering this question when I run my checklists, not because it’s not there, but because, when it’s done right, it’s hard to spot unless you’re looking for it specifically, and I’ve got 140 questions to answer.  For whatever reason, Enemy of the State was the best I could come up with, but this is a prime spot for plugging in a book instead.  What do you say? 

Do many small details throughout subtly (and ironically) tie into the thematic dilemma? 

As you write your first draft, you can’t worry very much about your theme. You have to simply assume that, if the thematic question is linked to the dramatic question, and everything is sufficiently ironic, then meaning will accrue. As a result, however, when it’s time to tackle later drafts, you may find that your theme is so indistinct that it’s barely detectable.

But wait, you say, isn’t it good that the theme is hard to spot? After all, you want your theme to resonate in the audience’s bones, not rattle around in their skulls, so shouldn’t you pitch it just below the frequency of human hearing? Well, yes, but if that’s the case then, like any good sub-audible hum, it has to be persistent.

Once your story and characters are set, you can go back and second-guess every minor choice you made and change many of them to subtly reinforce your theme. When we write, we inevitably make a lot of choices at random, just to keep writing: What job does the hero’s spouse have? Where are the heroes when they get the big news? Which blunt object is used for the killing? And etc. But now it’s time to go back and make all of those choices more meaningful.

Enemy of the State is a fun little thriller about a labor lawyer who receives damning evidence about the NSA from an old friend, then has to go on the run for his life. The movie has the “good vs. good” theme of security vs. privacy. This thematic dilemma is floated early on by a series of open questions posed by the hero’s wife, who works for the ACLU, but it’s also reinforced throughout in subtler ways...
  • In the beginning, the lawyer is trying to win a labor law case by using a secret videotape against some gangsters. It’s not admissible in court, but the gangsters don’t want it exposed.
  • Who got the lawyer the tape? A young woman he once had an affair with. The affair is over, but now he must hide the fact from his wife that he’s still working with her.
  • Where is he when he runs into his friend? A lingerie store, shopping for his wife, but because of his past affair, he’s afraid that she would assume he’s buying for someone else.
  • Why is he there? It’s Christmastime, which means that they’re hiding presents from their son, and he’s hiding the fact he’s raided their gift stash, which complicates things later on.
These are all things that subtly make that point that we all do things that we don’t want exposed to scrutiny, even if they’re not illegal.

I suspect that none of these details were in the first draft, since none of them is essential to the story, but once the plot had been worked out, writer David Marconi went back and replaced whatever random choices he had originally made with new details that subtly tied into the theme. I’ve heard this referred to as making a “theme tree”, yoking every detail together into a vast system of root and branch that all feeds into an organic whole. Every choice is a chance to multiply the meaning.

What do you say, any books come to mind?

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Day 2: False Goals

Thanks so much for your helpful suggestions on Day 1! For whatever reason, I have a hard time coming up with book examples that are well-known and on-point , but you guys are nailing it. Can you help me out on these three subcategories?

Does the hero have a false or short-sighted goal in the first half?

Just as your hero begins with a false or short-sighted philosophy, he should also pursue a false or short-sighted goal for the first half of your story. This can take many forms:

Wrong Solution to Right Solution: In 2006, the Lupus Foundation gave the TV show House an award for all it had done to spread awareness for the disease. But it was strange because, at the time, Dr. House had never correctly identified a case of Lupus. Instead, on several occasions, House’s team falsely identifies the patient’s mysterious ailment as Lupus before they realize the patient has a far-more exotic disease. Lupus is a little-understood, catch-all diagnosis that can explain all sorts of symptoms that don’t normally fit together, so for House’s team, it’s a tempting but false way to think of the puzzle in front of them. Nevertheless, it gives them tests to run, and these tests unexpectedly lead them to the real diagnosis they hadn’t suspected before.

Micro-Goal to Macro-Goal: This is a simpler form of false goal. In Star Wars, Luke goes from wanting to fix his runaway droid to wanting to blow up the Death Star. John McClane in Die Hard spends the first half of the movie just trying to call the cops before he realizes he’ll have to take on a terrorist cell single-handedly. These false goals make character motivations far more believable. If the heroes just woke up one day and decided to do a hugely daunting task, it would be hard to swallow. It’s far more compelling to watch them get sucked into greatness against their better judgment.

Total Reversal of Values: Juno goes off searching for a “cool” parent to entrust her kid to, then realizes in the end that she wants just the opposite. Dave in Breaking Away starts off trying to defeat the college kids, then realizes he really wants to join them. Peter Parker in Spider-Man wants to use his powers to make his own life better until his callousness gets his uncle killed. Jake Sully in Avatar goes from wanting to rejoin the marines to killing them en masse.

So what do you say? Any book suggestion for these three? 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Part 1

Thanks so much, guys, crowd-sourcing the revisions of the book has been so fun! Since we last spoke, I finally got my edits back from my editor, which is thrilling but weird. The edits are great, but it feels like coming home to discover that someone has been in your house, touching your stuff. Of note: Either she has a pronounced hatred of the word “that”, or I have an perverse addiction to it, or both.

One issue that comes up in the notes in this: Writer’s Digest books are aimed at aspiring novelists moreso than screenwriters, but I'm still over-relying on movie examples. So if you’re willing to keep helping me out, I thought we might try something new: I’ll share with you some places in which my editor wants some more book examples, and you can help me brainstorm.

Of course, this brings us to one of the big reasons I tend to focus on movies rather than books. Because there are a limited number of movies released, we all tend to see the same ones, and we all tend to agree on which ones are great, but books are totally different: Readers tend to have their own niches, hundreds of well-reviewed books come out every year in every niche, and individual reader taste varies much more than moviegoer taste.

If you’re talking about books that can be cited as examples, you have a pretty small list: On the one hand, you have high school lit: Austen, Dickens, the Brontes, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Morrison, etc. On the other hand you have those few bestsellers so big that they cross over to all readers: Rowling, Collins, Larsson, Flynn, etc. So it’s tough! Can you come up with examples that enough people have read?

So let’s try it! Here’s a typical list from the book illustrated solely by movie examples.

Does this challenge become something that’s not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)? 

Not all conflict is created equal. Genuine conflict occurs when characters don’t want to do something, for reasons such as these:
  • It would require them to question their deep-seated assumptions: Jason Schwartzman refuses to consider the possibility that he doesn’t rule the school in Rushmore.
  • It would require them to overcome an inner weakness: Steve Carrell has built up an extreme reluctance to mature in The 40 Year Old Virgin.
  • They promised someone they wouldn’t do it: Mark Wahlberg feels he cannot go off on his own in The Fighter without betraying his family.
  • It would reveal their painful secrets to others: Harrison Ford in The Fugitive cannot investigate his wife’s murder without exposing himself to the police.
  • It would get their love interest or a family member in trouble: Tobey Maguire is constantly afraid his activities will endanger his family members in the Spider-Man movies. 
For any of these five, can you help me come up with a book example, citing a book that most of us have actually read?  

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Great Un-Purge, Day 3: Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?

Let’s try to rescue another question from the Tone section, which was cut from the book for space.

On appeal: Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?

Why it was added: This is a good idea. When a story tries to defy all expectations, the audience quickly catches on to the gag, and simply loses all expectations (and engagement) ...but they also check out when a story slavishly checks off every box. They only way to keep their attention is to alternate between the two.

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: Yes, it fulfills all except one: the male leader dies and a subordinate woman survives and becomes the sole survivor.
  • An Education: Satisfies almost all. She doesn’t realize the boring boy is right for her, but that’s not universal in these movies.
  • The Babadook: The monster is both defeated and not, but nobody dies.
  • Blazing Saddles: It works as a straightforward western, a straightforward character comedy, a spoof and a satire.
  • Blue Velvet: Yes, the villain is killed and the girl is got, but we suspect that the hero will never be satisfied now that he’s seen the dark side.
  • The Bourne Identity: Yes, they reshot the ending to add more action, but kept the hero commited to his newfound pacifism.
  • Bridesmaids: Happy wedding, she gets guy, but he doesn’t save the day and the villain is befriended instead of getting comeuppance.
  • Casablanca: Yes, they admit they love each other and kiss…but then he sends her away. They shoot one Nazi…but forgive the other.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes, the mob has a falling out, which is common, but the feds win, which is uncommon.
  • Do the Right Thing: Comedy and drama come with fewer expectations than other genres, and it meets them all.
  • The Fighter: It satisfies just about all.
  • The Fugitive: Yes, everybody is caught, but none of the bad guys are killed, which is why this movie was nominated for best picture: it rises above the base violent urges that usually fuel these genres.
  • Groundhog Day: He gets the girl and finds happiness, but only through not wanting to have sex with her that night.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: They win the big battle but they also make peace. Hiccup wins but he also loses his foot.
  • In a Lonely Place: No, it doesn’t satisfy any of them, but that’s the point: this is a feminist film (albeit much less so than the book) that wants us to be aware of and worried about our urges to see violent pay-offs. It works brilliantly.
  • Iron Man: Villain is defeated, girl is lost (which is common for this genre), but secret identity is rejected, which is shockingly new.
  • Raising Arizona: They get an unlikely happy ending (getting forgiven for the crime), but not as happy as it could have been (if they had gotten to keep the kid)
  • Rushmore: All are satisfied.
  • The Shining: It satisfies them all: the black guy is killed, the ax murderer is killed by the innocents who live, there is a brief implication at the end that events may re-occur, etc. Nevertheless, many genre-fans are not satisfied with this movie, because of the reluctance to commit to the supernatural element.
  • Sideways: He ends up with the girl, but he doesn’t have to change in order to do it.
  • Silence of the Lambs: Bill is caught, but Lecter gets away.
  • Star Wars: The hero, the rogue and the mentor are all fairly traditional, but the princess is kick-ass, which defied expectations at the time.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Yes, our hard-boiled narrator is killed and the murderer is arrested, but it’s all oddly funny.
Deliberations: Some of those answers are a little contorted. This is a valuable concept, but it’s vague enough that it’s hard to answer. These answers sort of overlap with the Urges question, which we’ve moved to “Concept”, so it’s somewhat redundant.

The verdict: I guess it can go. In the book, every chapter has a “Misconceptions” section, so maybe this point can be moved there, possibly under “Concept”, or maybe under “Structure”?